Tag Archives: CBCA

Books read to small visitors

Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood, The Cleo Stories: The Necklace and The present (Allen & Unwin 2014)
Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood. Go to Sleep, Jessie! (Little Hare 2014)
Doctor Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (©1957; Random House)
Janet & Allan Ahlberg, Each Peach Pear Plum (©1978, Puffin)
Doctor Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham (©1960; Random House)

We have just had two small people visiting for a week (along with their mother, my niece). Although the little girls were mostly busy making things and being generally fascinating company, they did like being read to, which meant that we had a chance to discover some new books for very young reader–listeners, and to revisit some old ones.

1gsjLibby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood won two of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards this year (Freya won a third, but for older readers), and we were guided by the CBCA in our purchase of new books. Their books are warm, affectionate celebrations of the intelligence of their girl protagonists. In Go to Sleep, Jessie! the heroine shares a bedroom with a baby who refuses to go to sleep and instead keeps her awake by crying loudly. The parents’ well-meaning attempts to solve the problem are unsuccessful, and she solves it beautifully herself.

1tcsCleo is a bit older, and her problems are of a different order. ‘Everyone’ at a friend’s party has a necklace, but her parents say she can’t have one until her birthday, which is a very long time away.  In a second story she has to decide on a birthday present for her mother. The problems are real, and the solutions clever.

Both books harbour understated challenges to the parents who will read them aloud many times: what do you think about consumerism, envy, tattoos or ‘controlled crying’, among other things?

039480001XAfter dinner one night the two little girls put on a ‘show’ that consisted mainly of vigorous physical movement and silly faces, but included audience participation in which we adults had to take our socks off and wave them about, and later take turns reading from The Cat in the Hat. The book was apparently chosen at random, but it was wonderful to see the concentration grow on the young listeners’ faces as the story progressed. (Two thirty-somethings ostentatiously took to their smart phones during the reading. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.)


An ‘I spy’ book whose images turn out to tell a story. Hearing my niece read it to her daughters in a way that beautifully captured its music, I remembered again that the joy of reading excellent children’s books aloud is as much for the adults as for the young ones. And that’s true of books like this, that depend on the art for their full meaning.

Dr_Seuss_Green_Eggs_and_HamAnother Dr Seuss book. This one was referred to a couple of times as our almost-two-year-old was being resolutely negative (‘Would you like it in a box? Would you like it with your socks?’). Theodor ‘Dr Seuss’ Geisel makes it look easy, but to create books that beginning readers can manage that are also fun for the fiftieth – or should that be five hundredth? – time is the work of a genius.

There were other books – including a Snugglepot and Cuddlepie adaptation that leaves mercifully nameless both the revising writer and the simplifying artist. I tried to insinuate Where the Wild Things Are into the mix, but the little one, clearly recognising the book, rejected it as too scary.

aww-badge-2015Go to Sleep, Jessie! and The Cleo Stories,  are the thirteenth and fourteenth books I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I know they’re very slender, but it should count for something that I’ve read both of them at least four times in the last week.

Jasper Jones at the Book Group

Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones (Allen & Unwin 2009)

The fourth paragraph of Jasper Jones begins:

This is the hottest summer I can remember and the thick heat seems to seep in and keep in my sleepout.

‘Keep in’? That’s awkward, I thought, and it chimes oddly with ‘seep in’ and ‘sleepout’. The paragraph continues:

It’s like the earth’s core in here. The only relief comes from the cooler air that creeps in between the slim slats of my single window. It’s near impossible to sleep …

Seep in, keep in, sleepout, creeps in and sleep, all in five lines: this is definitely odd, but – along with the heat, the relief and those slats, which are slim for no reason other than alliteration – it’s clearly deliberate.

Over the next pages, while the story had my attention from the word go – thirteen year old Charlie Bucktin, the narrator, is woken in the night by the town’s bad boy Jasper Jones and led to a secret place in the bush where he’s faced with a terrible spectacle and an equally terrible dilemma – I had a weather eye out to see if anything would come of this stylistic oddity. Nothing did, in the sense that if you didn’t notice it you weren’t missing a vital clue to the book’s meaning. But Charlie is in love with language, and bursts of assonance and alliteration for their own sake amount to something of a stylistic signature. I did a quick scan before returning the book to the library, and noted, from many examples, ‘a bundle of lonely bones tied to a stone’ (page 123), ‘Pored over it, taking little portions’ (page 128), and this, in one of Charlie’s reflective moments:

Sorry means you feel the pulse of other people’s pain, as well as your own, and saying it means you take a share of it. And so it binds us together, makes us as trodden and sodden as one another. Sorry is a lot of things. It’s a hole refilled. A debt repaid. Sorry is the wake of misdeed. It’s the crippling ripple of consequence. Sorry is sadness, just as knowing is sadness. Sorry is sometimes self-pity. But sorry, really, is not about you. It’s theirs to take or leave.

Like the frequent references to Charlie’s reading – To Kill a Mockingbird, Batman, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which he hasn’t read, but Eiza, the love interest, has, and seen the film), Huckleberry Finn, The Wizard of Oz – this fascination with words is important in establishing Charlie’s character and the tone of the book. It’s been described as an Australian To Kill a Mocking Bird, but I doubt if Harper Lee’s book was anything like as intertextual as this. The description is OK as a sales pitch but I’m surprised that reviewers have echoed it.

Anyhow, it’s a terrific, fast moving, undemanding read: a coming-of-age romance cum mystery cum homage to Mark Twain cum historical drama (the Vietnam War is on, and the Beaumont children are mentioned towards the end) cum tale of pre-adolescent friendship (with a substantial nod towards the movie Stand By Me). There’s a beautiful description of a cricket match in which Charlie’s best friend, a very short Vietnamese boy (‘Jeffrey Lu on debut’) makes a splash, in a way that reminded me of Ruth Starke’s brilliant book for younger readers, Nips XI.

One thing I don’t understand is what makes the book ‘mainstream’ rather than ‘young adult’. There’s some pretty intense swearing, I guess, but sex is treated with great tact; even when sexual abuse is described explicitly in a letter that’s crucial to the plot, we don’t get to read the letter. The story is told from a thirteen-year-old’s point of view, and there’s no hint that he’s in any way an unreliable narrator: we don’t know any more than he does and we’re not invited to make judgments that differ from his – we learn about the world with him. In fact, Charlie’s angry mother is treated with less adult-sympathy than similar mothers in many a YA title. I’ve heard that the classification was a policy decision on the part of the publishers – that they were invited to submit the book for the Children’s Book Council Awards, but declined. The mainstream classification seems to have paid off in adult readership and award nominations – always assuming that a Miles Franklin shortlisting is more prestigious than one from the Children’s Book Council, and that being on the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist alongside David Malouf’s Ransom and Coetzee’s Summertime is more dignified than being named in the same breath as Justine Larbalestier’s Liar (not a view I share: I’m looking forward to Justine’s book as keenly as I am to David’s, and who in their right mind would want to compete for a prize against Malouf and Coetzee?). I hope this taxonomical decision hasn’t discouraged the young people who are the book’s natural readership. [Since writing that I’ve seen an online  trailer that is clearly aimed at teenagers, so it looks as if the pubisher is having two bob each way, and a good thing too.]

I wrote that much a number of weeks ago. The Book Group met last night.

With one exception, we were lukewarm. No one actively hated the book, but different people saw different things as gaping flaws. One man said he found Charlie’s decision at the very start to help conceal a crime highly implausible, and intolerably hackneyed – from then on he read with very little pleasure. Another was irritated by the banter between Charlie and Geoffrey (though one man said he thought that was the best thing in the book). Others found the narrative voice, and the characters’, wildly inconsistent – perhaps especially in beautifully written passages such as the aria on ‘sorry’ I quoted from above. I think we were unanimous in finding the characters’ emotional responses to crises (a grisly death, the acrimonious departure of a parent, the discovery of a grandparent) lamentably one-dimensional. I’m sorry to say that as we talked the book’s charms diminished. I proposed a reading that transcended these concerns for consistency, verisimilitude and psychological realism. Perhaps we ought to see the book as akin to the startlingly discontinuous novelitas of César Aira that I’ve just been reading about in the current Heat. But that didn’t wash. Its one defender said it reminded him vividly of things he had felt when he was an adolescent, and he wasn’t howled down.

Sorry, Craig.

NSWPLA shortlist

Last Tuesday the Children’s Book Council of Australia announced the short list for their Books of the Year Awards. I’ve only read one of the titles (Ursula Dubosarsky and Andrew Joyner’s lovely The Terrible Plop), but I applauded a couple of inclusions in their Notables Books list that didn’t get shortlisted (mainly Cassandra Golds’s The Museum of Mary Child and the latest of Jackie French and Peter Sheehan’s Australian history titles, Weevils, War and Wallabies: 1920–1945).

Today I turned up at the Mint in Macquarie Street for the announcement of the short list for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, hoping I’d have read more of the books and be able to applaud more of the nominees. I was also looking forward to clapping eyes on our newish premier in person. I did see the premier, but it turns out I haven’t read many of the books. It was a pleasant event all the same.

The short lists are already up on the PLA website, and the announcement was being tweeted by my friend misrule and the person next to her (who is paid to tweet), so I’m not exactly breaking news here.

Kristina Keneally was taller than I expected, and not so different in person from her on-screen appearance: poised, slightly awkward, with a sweet smile and a lively manner. She announced the short list with a PowerPoint  presentation, which I’ve just realised is a way of making a personal appearance approximate to television. There was none of Frank Sartor’s teasing of authors for being too shy to put their hands up – that may have been embarrassing, even painful, but it was personal. None of Nathan Rees fanboy enthusiasm about ‘talking to David [Malouf]’ or phoning Christos Tsiolkas. No devil-may-care quoting from Stalin, in the Carr tradition. CK made jokes (‘bribing the judges is not allowed’) and personal comments  about not being the most literate person in the Keneally family (her uncle by marriage is Tom Keneally), but it was all from the script. It was a good script, mind you, and included an honorable mention of Patricia Wrightson. The one moment of clear humanity was when Kristina stumbled over Justine Larbalestier’s surname, and apologised to Justine (who I believe is in New York just now). We all sat in the Mint theatrette and applauded quietly at the end – the shortlisted authors didn’t get to stand and be recognised, there was no partisan applause for individuals.

The food was good, and the mood was light and friendly.

The short list itself?

I haven’t read any of the books on the Patricia Wrightson (for children’s literature), Ethel Turner (for young people’s literature), Douglas Stewart (for non-fiction), Glenda Adams (for new writing), Kenneth Slessor (for poetry) or Literary Scholarship (no famous name yet attached) prizes, though there are books on all those lists I’d love to read, and some are already on my shelves waiting for their time to come.

The Script Writing Award list is stunning. I’ve seen four of the six. Misrule took a break from tweeting to tell me Tangle is on Foxtel and that I’d hate it. I missed Fairweather Man, but it sounds great. I haven’t blogged about East West 101, but I love it. I’ve added links to my offhand blogged remarks on the others:

Jane Campion, Bright Star
Kristen Dunphy and Michael Miller, East West 101: Episode 13
Adam Elliot, Mary and Max
Fiona Seres, Tangle: Episode 1, Yellow Amendments
Aviva Ziegler and Veronica Fury, Fairweather Man
Warwick Thornton, Samson and Delilah (also here)

Of the two works listed for the Community Relations Commission Award, I’ve read and loved the first, and look longingly at the second:

Dr Abbas El Zein – Leave to Remain: A Memoir
Dr Tim Soutphommasane – Reclaiming Patriotism: Nation-Building for Australian Progressives

I’d done OK on the Christina Stead Prize too, with three books read, two on the to-be-read list and strong opinions on all five:

J.M. Coetzee, Summertime
Richard Flanagan, Wanting
Cate Kennedy, The World Beneath
Steven Lang, 88 Lines about 44 Women
David Malouf, Ransom
Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones

Now I’m wondering if I can manage to read Cate Kennedy’s, David Malouf’s and Steven Lang’s books in time to cast a vote in the People’s Choice Award.